Alexander Rocklin: Draupadi through the Fire

The Regulation of Religion and the Making of Hinduism in Colonial Trinidad by Alexander RocklinToday we welcome a guest post from Alexander Rocklin, author of The Regulation of Religion and the Making of Hinduism in Colonial Trinidad, just published this month by UNC Press.

How can religious freedom be granted to people who do not have a religion? While Indian indentured workers in colonial Trinidad practiced cherished rituals, “Hinduism” was not a widespread category in India at the time. On this Caribbean island, people of South Asian descent and African descent came together—under the watchful eyes of the British rulers—to walk on hot coals for fierce goddesses, summon spirits of the dead, or honor Muslim martyrs, practices that challenged colonial norms for religion and race. Drawing deeply on colonial archives, Alexander Rocklin examines the role of the category of religion in the regulation of the lives of Indian laborers struggling for autonomy.

The Regulation of Religion and the Making of Hinduism in Colonial Trinidad is available now in both print and ebook editions.


Draupadi through the Fire

In August 2018, at a People’s National Movement (or PNM) Sports and Family Day gathering in Tabaquite, a majority Indian Trinidadian area in central Trinidad, PNM members put on a skit portraying a dancer in a yellow sari being disrobed by two men in red gorilla costumes (fully revealing a red PNM shirt underneath the sari). In Trinidad and Tobago national politics, red is the color of the PNM (the party in power in 2018). The PNM is popularly identified as looking after the interests of Afro-Trinbagonian. The color yellow is the color of the United National Congress (the UNC), a party most often identified with Indo-Trinbagonians. (Although it should be noted that both parties have leadership and membership from various ethnoracial groups on the islands). Tabaquite PNM constituency Chairman Curtis Shade explained later that the skit was not meant to be insulting, racist, or to depict violence. It was meant to portray Tabaquite’s movement “away from the yellow of the UNC to the joyful red of the PNM;”[1] that is, it showed Tabaquite’s Indo-Trinidadians’s new support for the PNM. This, however, was not how it was interpreted by some. Critics of the skit focused on its portrayal of violence against women and the reification of ethnoracial tensions in the twin-island nation, [2] and many UNC-allied critics focused specifically on religious insult to Indo-Trinbagonians. These critics followed a variety of avenues to mount a convincing case that the PNM insulted Indian religion in order to elicit an apology, ultimately tying the events of the skit to the epic protagonist Draupadi. Examining the changing fortunes of Draupadi in colonial Trinidad will allow us to flesh out a longer history of the politics of Hinduism and the category religion informing this incident. It was through a textually oriented ideal of religion, and not an insult to Draupadi herself, I will argue, that was the basis for offense in this case.

By convincingly tying the skit’s insult to a “sacred text,” critics were ultimately able to elicit an apology from Prime Minster Dr. Keith Rowley and the PNM. Specifically, they compared the skit to the scene of the disrobing of Draupadi from the Indian epic the Mahabharata. A letter to the editor of the Trinidad Express from the pundit Satyanand Maharaj, published the day after the skit’s performance read: “At the PNM national event the Hindu population was horrified as a scene from the Mahabharata was played out with negative religious and racial overtones. As a practising Hindu pundit I stood aghast, frozen in one spot as a group describing themselves as PNM Gorillas disrobed what appeared as a defenceless woman in a yellow sari. This scene is identical to [that] of the disrobing of Drupadi in the Mahabharata.” [3]

At a PNM political meeting held at the Malabar Community Centre, almost a week after the skit, Rowley finally issued an apology, recognizing the religious hurt to the Indo-Trinbagonian Hindu community. “Tonight, on behalf of the People’s National Movement and all concerned, I unreservedly apologise to the Hindu community.” Rowley said he had not heard the story of the Mahabharata before, but now knew that the skit had mirrored the disrobing scene.[4] Rowley said that he had learned that the Mahabharata was “a serious, spiritual, religious expression, of something that is extremely significant to the Hindu population” and that the skit was a “serious insult to their religious mythology” and he now understood “how deeply hurt and offended they were.”[5] The successful transfiguration of the skit into a reference to a rarefied “sacred text” or “mythology,” understood to be the very basis for religious beliefs and practices, is what made the claim to hurt convincingly “religious” in nature in this context (an argument among elites on the national stage).

We can see here UNC supporters’ adaptation of an elite, Protestantized definition of religion, creating a primarily textually oriented and based Hinduism, a construction of Hinduism we can trace to colonial Trinidad. This exclusivistic construction of Hinduism as a “world religion” also helped to reproduce reified ethnoracial distinctions between Indian/Hindu and African. Critics’ strategic use of this construal of religion, connecting it to the “sacred mythology” and its heroine Draupadi, helped to score a hypothetical win for the opposition. Interestingly, the claim being made was not that Draupadi was herself a “sacred” superhuman being, a goddess being mocked or violated. In an extended version of Satyanand Maharaj’s op-ed published on the Facebook page of Buzzalert TT, Maharaj wrote that “Every Hindu is familiar with this story in our Holy text and as a result is deeply offended by the PNM insensitivity to the Hindu community” and that  “Hinduism is one of the few religions that recognize the divinity in the female form such as Mother Lakshmi, therefore the violence [against] a woman in the skit is untenable.”[6] It was the text and the insult to all women, not Draupadi specifically, that grounded claims to “religious” hurt. But Draupadi was once a popular goddess in her own right in Trinidad. However, although the purported embodiment of (a textually authorized) Draupadi in the skit was recognized as religious from different sides of the dispute, in fact material and embodied interactions with Draupadi as a devi, a goddess, in colonial Trinidad and after, most often through walking on hot coals, called Firepass, have historically not been categorized as religion. They were often marginalized in a newly emerging “Hinduism,” subjected to denunciation and police regulation.

As I discuss in my book, The Regulation of Religion and the Making of Hinduism in Colonial Trinidad, Hinduism was not something that Indian indentured laborers brought with them on the ship from India in the mid-nineteenth century. Hinduism only became a widespread social formation and collective identity in Trinidad in the early twentieth century, through the work of newly emerging middle class Hindu organizations. As I argue, social formations are performatively enacted as “religions” based on the specific norms for religion dominant in particular contexts. In early twentieth century in Trinidad, the colonial regime defined religions as discrete, textually oriented communities of belief. In order for newly constructed Hindu institutions to receive recognition as “religious” (gaining access to religious freedom and the possibility of government funding), they had to meet this colonial norm, basically modeling themselves on elite forms of Christianity.

In the early to mid-twentieth century, Indian Trinidadians began to incorporate and rework colonial norms for religion and race. Practices that did not fit these models for religion, such as walking on hot coals for a goddess like Draupadi, and the goddess Draupadi herself along with them, began to decline in popularity and importance, as distinctions among religions and races regnant today began to crystalize. Prior to this, though, in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Firepass, as a more widespread practice, was in various ways challenging to colonial norms for both religion and race.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, fire walking was identified as “Madrassi” or South Indian in Trinidad (and so considered not quite “Hindu”). It was frequently performed in what was defined as public space, challenging the colonial binaries religious/secular and private/public. Further, it featured elements like animal sacrifice, the manifestation or “possession” by goddesses or gods, and bodily mortification, which were offensive to colonial and middleclass sensibilities. Elite commenters in Trinidad expressed bafflement about what textual source could possibly authorize such practice, the frequent claim being that there was none. For instance, in a long article describing a Firepass ritual in northern Trinidad at the end of the 19th century, a reporter for the Port of Spain Gazette wrote on August 12, 1890: “What I fail to find, Mr. Editor, is the authority for this festival. There is not a word mentioned about it in any of their sacred books or Sastras, in Hindu Mythology, the Bhagwat, the Ramayan, or Bharathum.” Without such support, Firepass was often denounced as “superstition” rather than true religion. Regulations were instituted in 1884 to curtail fire walking in Trinidad, particularly in what was defined as public space. Further, Firepass also featured practitioners who we would today identify as Hindus, Muslim, and Christians, as well as Indian and African Trinidadians, all united, not necessarily by a shared text or system of belief, but through practices dedicated to Draupadi and other superhuman beings. These heterogenous groups of fire walkers challenged colonial ethnoracial assumptions about the inherent separateness and separability of religions and races.

How one could be Hindu continued to transform into the mid-twentieth century, reflecting the continued expansion of middleclass Hindu sensibilities. Fierce goddesses who demanded blood or ambulation on hot coals were moved more and more outside of acceptable practice, and the growth of “orthodox” Hindu schools and temples helped to solidify these changes, to an even greater degree than before making a standardized Hinduism across Trinidad. Although fierce goddess devotion is today in many ways excluded from an idealized Hinduism, its formation even in colonial Trinidad was always already done within the constraints and possibilities of the colonial secular.

[1] Clint Chan Tack, “Kamla: No apology from Rowley,” Trinidad and Tobago Newsday, August 17, 2018.
[2]CAFRA T&T’s Comments on Skit Portrayal at PNM Family Day on August 16, 2018,” CAFRA T&T Facebook page.
[3] Satyanand Maharaj “Why religious hatred at family day?” Trinidad Express, August 13, 2018.
[4] Joel Julien. “PM Rowley Sorry for ‘Sari Skit’,” The Trinidad Guardian, August 19, 2018.
[5]Watch: PM apologises to Hindu community over sari skit” Loop, August 19, 2018.


Alexander Rocklin is visiting assistant professor of religious studies at the College of Idaho.  You can read his earlier UNC Press Blog post here.